Layoffs take surreal turn when HR department faces the axe

'It's a different scenario… you’re dealing with folks who know the inside scoop'

Layoffs take surreal turn when HR department faces the axe

Layoffs are a difficult part of an HR professional's job. That's especially true when they come in their own department.

Job cuts among human resource professionals are rising as companies slow hiring and trim investments in once-hot areas like diversity and training. Facebook parent Meta Platforms Inc. made HR and recruitment the first target of a broader layoff this week, eliminating 1,500 employees in those roles, people familiar with the matter said.

Adobe Inc. is also eliminating a “small number” of recruiters, the company said recently. Diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) teams, which often fall under the HR department, have been gutted at Twitter Inc. and elsewhere. Many HR functions, such as writing job descriptions, could also soon be done by new AI tools like ChatGPT4.  

Shedding HR workers is trickier than a typical corporate cull. For starters, they’re intimately familiar with the company’s internal policies and procedures, so the process must be executed to the letter. Also, the person delivering the bad news isn’t just some unknown HR rep, but a trusted colleague and perhaps even a friend.

And cutting the HR function too deep could create problems later on if only a skeleton crew remains when business conditions improve. In some cases, entire HR departments are eliminated, creating a bizarre phenomenon where the last remaining staffer has to lay themselves off.

“It is a different scenario,” said Kelly Yeates, vice president of service operations at Insperity, which handles HR functions for 11,000 North American clients. “You are dealing with folks who know all the inside scoop, and they’re the first to start reading the tea leaves.”

Adds Harvard Business School professor Sandra Sucher: “HR is closest to the sausage making.” 

Ebb and flow to hiring

Job cuts so far this year are the highest since the 2009 financial crisis, according to outplacement agency Challenger, Gray & Christmas. Layoffs took place across all 30 sectors Challenger tracks, the first time that’s happened in a decade and another sign that the culling has spread far beyond technology. HR or recruiting roles have accounted for 28% of all layoffs in tech, training provider 365 Data Science found, and postings for general HR jobs have declined 23% over the past year, according to Textio, which helps companies remove bias in job posts and performance reviews. 

It's not hard to see how companies justify a reduced need for HR reps. Along with fewer new hires to recruit and show the ropes, cost-conscious organizations are also trimming budgets for workplace programs including diversity, leadership training and wellbeing. “I’ve seen more angst among DEI practitioners,” said Yeates, recalling a recent conversation where a diversity staffer asked her for help in acquiring new skills as she feared for her job.

Companies also hired more HR employees than usual during the pandemic given the unprecedented challenges of coordinating remote work, rolling out vaccine mandates and grappling with the surge of resignations. Last year, organizations employed one full-time HR employee for every 69 employees, according to workplace consultant Gartner Inc. That compares to a historical norm of 1 to 100.

The push to get workers back to the office could also impact HR roles. Meta told em­ploy­ees this week that it would pause all new re­mote-work ap­plications and re­quests to trans­fer to an­other of­fice through the first half of this year. HR staffers would typically handle those requests. 

Silver lining to layoffs

One silver lining for HR professionals is that those who handle compliance and benefits typically stick around. Others can sometimes transfer to different roles inside the organization. Recruiters, for instance, can make very good salespeople. And some HR workers spend years embedded in support of specific business units, like manufacturing, and learn that business well enough to get hired.

There are also plenty of industries, such as hospitality and health care, that continue to hire and will need workforce expertise.

Still, that doesn’t remove the pain and suffering of getting sacked, which can be especially jarring for those in the HR.  

“Organizations underestimate the depth of disengagement that occurs during a layoff, and with HR, there’s two levels of disengagement,” said George Penn, managing vice president at Gartner, who has laid off HR reps and been laid off himself. They’re already managing the broader layoff, and now they have additional stress from the impact on their teammates, or, if they are the next to get thrown overboard, on themselves personally. 

Says Penn: “This is a peer of mine delivering the message.” 

--With assistance from Brody Ford and Edward Ludlow.


Copyright Bloomberg News

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